Sunday, 29 November 2009

Princess Style: Margaret


Photo: Cecil Beaton

Little Augury has invited me to name ten eternal beauties. I plumbed the depths of originality and included Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly , I couldn't help it. But then, casting around for some that may not be on other people's list in L A's upcoming post, I remembered Princess Margaret whose allure was displaced in the popular imagination by the slightly vacuous beauty of Princess Diana.

Photo: Cecil Beaton

Margaret, who died in 2002, was the younger sister of Queen Elizabeth as most will know. She went from classic English rose to sophisticated beauty when she married society photographer and all-round creative, Anthony Armstrong Jones (Lord Snowdon as he became). Earlier she had fallen in love with Group Captain Peter Townsend but was not allowed to marry him. A small matter of his earlier divorce. This brought her the sympathy of the nation and together with her later divorce from Snowdon followed by her 'affair' (whatever that was) with the young Roddy Llewellyn, she was generally perceived to be a lonely and unhappy woman. In the shadow of her elder sister, she never really carved out an identity of her own and yes, there was whiff of scandal around her.

Photo: unknown

 I don't think she was the sad case she was made out to be at all. She had the social life of a diva and was well-known for keeping her courtiers and friends up late into the night carousing. A patron of the arts, in particular the ballet, she was highly intelligent. It was possibly the saddest aspect of her life that she never fulfilled that potential. She could behave like a diva: let her hair down, seduce her companions into thinking she was after all quite normal and then suddenly remind them of her status. But I would imagine that on a good day she was, in the words of poet Ernest Dowson, wild and sweet and witty. Amongst Lord Snowdon's artistic circle of friends she flirted with bohemia. Being friends with the genius of comedy, actor Peter Sellers, there is a very jolly home movie of the princess (presumably directed by him) doing a comic routine herself. And that was after she was filmed doing the washing up.

Photo: Lord Snowdon (I hope!)

With a flawless complexion and eyes like sapphires, Pincess Margaret was more stylish than the Queen. Whereas Elizabeth has kept virtually the same hairstyle all her life, Margaret's continually evolved. My favourite was a gamine cut with a fringe, but generally it was long and flamboyantly styled. Her wardrobe was often romantic, sometimes a little vulgar, occasionally stuffy but generally she exuded glamour. I can't get enough of looking at her as a younger woman. It was terribly sad when, at the end of her life, she was cast down by a stroke and an unfortunate accident where her feet were scalded in the bath. She was, finally, frail and wheelchair bound. Let's not go there.

Photo: Norman Parkinson [?] At her home in Mustique (That' John Lewis fabric there!)

This faintly cheesy You-tube clip brings together static images of some gorgeous moments of her life and some of the sadder ones too. Do enjoy it. (And click x to get rid of the advert)

Monday, 23 November 2009

From elasticated trousers to elasticated bracelets : one for the Marble Halls of Embarrassment.

I was in Brazil and found myself at a dinner as the No. 2 Guest of Honour. That’s not difficult, you just have to turn up in the company of the No. l G of H. I was happy to find that ten of us were on a round table - don’t start me on that top-table cruel joke where you stare glumly out at all the happy bastards chatting right left and centre and the hapless person each end feels like a pariah. The words coconut and shy come to mind.

What was I saying? Dinner was convivial, slightly hard work, but we were oiling the diplomatic wheels when it all imploded into embarrassment. Why was that? Because my wrists are too damn big aren’t they. My official gift was a beautiful bracelet of semi-precious geological specimens with a gold clasp. I opened the velvet lined box, admired it, oohed and ahhhed, felt sick to my stomach and put it by my wine glass. Phew. But uh oh, out of the corner of my eye, I see one of the wives pull her chair back and advance towards to me. I know what’s coming. I’m thinking ‘Off you fuck darling!’ but she has to wrap the bracelet affectionately round my wrist, it’s obvious. I could have told her it would leave a yawning gap that no amount of pinching the skin above my racing pulse would close.

The room temperature drops ten degrees. Hosts give each other panicky looks and then No. 1 G of H, my very own Sir Galahad, gallops to the rescue. ‘Ah you see, my wife has rather well-developed wrists from windsurfing’. What?? I grew out of my wetsuit in 1990. But I run with the ball. ‘Oh yes, definitely yes, from hanging off the boom. Like this’. To ease the embarrassment that has never quite left me, I thought I would share with you the idea of me in my evening dress from Harrods Fat Girl Department flexing my biceps, wrists clenched doing pull-ups in the air. It was absolutely horrible. Next day I was allowed to go and change the bracelet for an elasticated one. Huh.

All images © Rosie West

Sunday, 22 November 2009

To Christmas shop or not to Christmas shop?

Top image: Paul Outerbridge
Below: Modern Toss card. Their blog here
Bottom: The Original Poster

Friday, 20 November 2009

Desert Dystopia

Recent photographs of Dubai, which keeps growing out of the desert at an alarming rate, come from a new blog called A Caged Bird Sings. Do they remind you of 'Metropolis' (1927) Fritz Lang's famous sci-fi dystopia ? This is Dubai's Airport.

Fritz Lang's Metropolis

That tinfoil airport again

Dubai skyscrapers crouching in the shadow of the tallest building in the world


That same Dubai aesthetic. Eerie, no?

One big construction site

Dubai Photos © Olivia Grabowski West at A Caged Birds Sings. Olivia happens to be my daughter and she set out with such gusto on her blog to feature her life in pictures that she shamed me into abandoning my computer games and trying to revive my own drippy blog.
You might also like her website here.

Nicky Haslam - 'The Alchemiser'

'One does interpret their life as well as their desire for beauty'

'Hi Society', a riveting BBC4 documentary about Nicky Haslam, informs you about the multi-dimensional talent and personality of a man who has brazenly kept himself in the spotlight for over four decades. It will also amuse you, touch you and possibly outrage you. An upper-class Englishman (and how), he is the only interior designer to have been profiled in Vanity Fair.

I highly recommend my British chums to watch it on BBC I-player here until 8th December and apologise to everyone else who cannot access this treasure house of tv repeats. Luckily, I have polished up my shorthandwriting skills to transcribe a few of many playful quotes and throwaway lines.

The reporter, who followed Haslam for a year of his hectic existence (there were assignments in Moscow, New York, the Home Counties; a star-studded ball he threw for Janet de Botton; up to five A-list parties a night..) concludes that he is an 'alchemiser'. (What's the difference between that and an alchemist, I wonder?) Clearly, cornices and sock drawers are only a fraction of the services on offer to his clients.

Now comes the snobbery and the condescension which Haslam himself only toys with to provoke and amuse. Actually he is too interested in and curious about people to put them down and his charm is intoxicating. But Christopher Gibbs speaks with the hauteur of old money as he explains that Haslam transforms his clients' lives utterly and 'introduces them to a world where they can wave at people they see in the newspapers'. I really don't like the tone of his voice. World of Interiors founding editor, Minn Hogg gives a patronising but jolly account of his role and you can't suppress a laugh here:

You're partly a shrink, I think, when you are the decorator. You are giving the wife such fun all the time and you are giving the husband the most terrible headaches. He doesn't know that the fringe costs £500 a metre .. a cushion a thousand pounds, are you mad?.. but it has to be a bit of give and take on that. In a way he becomes the boyfriend of the wife but that is safe because he's homosexual and the husband's jolly glad she's got something to do all day, and it's huge fun for her and he takes her around [...] giving her a marvellous time.

So far so good ? Now, what do you think of this? The reporter made an inventory over the months of all the things that Haslam deems 'common'. Splutter with outrage, mouth your apologies for committing one of these solecisms, feel smug you agree or just have a good laugh. After all some of it is simply pricking pomposity and much of it is bollocks and he knows it:

people who say their gardens have their own little micro-climate, swans, champagne flutes, Christmas parties, organic food, anyone Scottish, non-Russians with Russian girlfriends, film stars, complaining about the smoking ban, celebrity chefs, pronouncing the 't' in trait (it's a French word), pronouncing the 'e' in furore (it's also a French word), coloured bath towels, drinking cappuccinos after eleven, the Caribb_ean, Art Deco, scented candles, garlic on your breath, framed photographs of anyone non-Royal, Morocco, bottled water, not knowing the words of hymns, queuing at Annabel's, St. Tropez, relaxing, cufflinks, fur coat on men, three-quarter length trousers on anyone, tasseled loafers, jet-lag, wheat intolerance, sushi and above all, loving your parents.

See what I mean?

Love him or loathe him, the social butterfly Nicky Haslam has been friends with Tallulah Bankhead, Andy Warhol, David Bailey and god knows who else down the years. One of his ex lovers in the film suggested that his confinement to bed for three years with polio as a child, unable to move more than his eyes and his hands, explains his need not to miss anything now. His mother brought her exotic friends to his bedroom to amuse him and he accounts his terrible ordeal as rather wonderful. I imagine his memoir 'Redeeming Features' will be engaging, witty, teasingly snobbish and name-dropping to the hilt. But also poignant.

Images: Top, At the Prado Congo Art Party at the Double Club February 2009 (Photo Tim Whitby/Getty Images)

Below, from Nicholas Haslam here

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Tiara Time!

This is the time of year when you can spot a lady with the sort of sculptured hairdo I used to see at my mother’s bridge parties: folds of interlocking backcombed hair, glistening with lacquer and concealing enough hairpins to jam an airport x-ray machine. It’s a gorgeous sight with a diamond tiara atop. You can’t really wear one unless you provide that order of padding.

At today’s State Opening of Parliament peeresses in evening dresses crammed the red leather benches of the Lords’ chamber and gave some relief to the sea of red gowns with white fur collars tied with a black ribbon that the peers (male and female) wear on this one occasion a year. Some of the Queen Titanias who choose to wear a tiara will have left home by 9 am like that, startling commuters, but they had probably been up since dawn with their hairdressers. I know of one stylist who goes round to a string of clients on her motorbike to fix the ice on their pretty heads.

Nancy, wife of Viscount Astor wearing her tiara with the Sancy diamond at the State Opening of Parliament in 1948

It’s a long wait for the Queen to arrive wearing the Imperial State Crown to take up her golden throne and read her speech that is written by the Government. Incidentally, darlings,it’s so nice to see it worn instead of having to jostle the crowds in front of the crown jewels at the Tower of London! Also, it's far better to sit on the Labour benches and look across to the Tory ladies, who clearly have the greatest tally of tiaras. I saw some whoppers and longed for binoculars to inspect them but then I didn’t want to get caught on telly snooping.

c 1996 Lady Haden Guest a.k.a Jamie Lee Curtis takes her seat. I remember the press photographs at the time showed that this was a simple gold laurel leaf design. Perfect.

I also spotted the fakes. What’s the point of that? I don’t know. I do know actually because once I wore one from Butler & Wilson myself. Try anything once (except folk dancing and incest) is my motto. I am embarrassed about it now. A lovely ancient aristocrat offered to lend me hers but I have a block head and this was far too dainty. Besides, she had told me in her crackly voice, unable to pronounce her ‘Rs’ that someone women wear a tiawa with all the gwace of a cart horse. I decided to wun a mile at that point.

No carthorse here. Loelia Duchess of Westminster photographed by Cecil Beaton in 1931 wearing a kokoshnik halo-shaped tiara. I have seen this, or something very similar, in action!

The Queen arrives at the Palace of Westminster in what I suppose you could call her travelling coronet. The Imperial State crown weighs about 37 ounces and would be difficult to get out of a coach in. She dons that in the robing room which houses her coronation throne.

I personally think that all the beauty of this bling is surpassed by the young Queen herself in this video, giving us a guided tour of the crown she wore today.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

What else are friends for?

I spoke to an old friend today who observed that my blog was getting 'drippy'. Not quite Jam & Jerusalem yet (that's the mantra of the Women's Institute. Jelly & Jerusalem, for my US chums, sounds even better.) But cats! And teddies, oh please! I might tell you, thank you very much, that that teddy was faintly subversive and disrespectful towards pigeons.

I so wish I had thought of the self-satirising strapline of Rurritable "Another Wimpy Cat-Blogger". Here is a man hewing out a rustic life in North Carolina or is it Virginia, somewhere like that, spewing out the most elegantly foul-mouthed political rants and wrestling with the egos of a couple of independently-minded mules with super-sized pizzles. So try out Rurritable for some more muscular animal fun and some of the best writing around. And I forgot to say he's an artist. Blimey.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

The Blues and the Pinks

I'm the sort of person who doesn't know whether it's Monday or Thursday and then it turns out to be Wednesday. But this weekend I became painfully aware that it had started with Friday the 13th. My son's girlfriend had her handbag (with most of her life in it) stolen in the pub; the rains came and the roof leaked into one of the bedrooms; my other house guest has been chasing up her mobile possibly left in a taxi. It's been a surreal couple of days of drifting through a sense of helplessness and anxiety and doing damage control in the attic. But worse things happen at sea, I know.

So to cheer myself up I have found Julie Garland's Trolley Song from the 1944 film Meet Me In St Louis. I love that woman in the green with the pink buttons and the whole thing puts me in a candy-coloured mood.

Top Image from

Friday, 13 November 2009

Lady Diana Cooper and Me

Thursday night was the National Maritime Museum's Sea Words dinner held at the Trafalgar Tavern in Greenwich (London). Husband and wife team Libby Purves and Paul Heiney, both marvellous writers and broadcasters, are at the helm of this delightful event where invited guests read sad, funny, serious and jolly poetry and prose on a maritime theme. There are sea songs too, like the heartbreaking 'Tom Bowling' and the pretty 'Lass Who Loved A Sailor'.

My husband, a naval man, read 'Putting to Sea' by Joseph Conrad and 'Casabianca', more popularly known as 'The Boy Who Stood on the Burning Deck' which always makes me cry. 'Sea Fever', by John Masefield my favourite poem from childhood was read by 17- year old Mike Perham, who returned this August from his solo circumnavigation of the globe. Handsome, urbane and incredibly funny Jeremy Nicholas did 'A Wobbly Walrus' by J. Prelutsky and brought the house down with Harris's attempted rendition of HMS Pinafore from 'Three Men in a Boat' by Jerome K Jerome. There was so much more I could mention but perhaps the highlight of the evening was John Julius Norwich furiously declaiming 'A Dirty Night on the Fastnet Rock' penned by a 12-year old boy in the 19th Century. As he said himself, it could never have been written by a 16-year old, say, because of its innocent use of absurd grandiose language. It was hilarious in its self-importance and wildly imagined images of the storm.

As many people will know, John Julius Norwich, now 80, is the son of fabled 20th Century aristocratic beauty, wit and socialite Lady Diana Cooper. I had a chance to ask him about her and she was, he said, the most wonderful mother with a huge sense of fun. He particularly remembered her collecting him from school in a cream convertible car and how they had chased fire engines. I think I might have done that myself but not in such style. John Julius is totally charming and still produces his annual anthology of favourite writing 'Christmas Crackers'.

Finally, I did manage to tell him that Lady Diana Cooper was my role model for wearing yachting caps.

Lady Diana Cooper

And Me - rowing the Thames earlier this century

Top image: courtesy The Peak of Chic
Below: from A Chequered Past by Peter Schlesinger

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

A Bear's Eye View of London

This might make you beary-eyed. Call me a silly old thing but I defy anyone not to go awwww at Misery Bear's trip to London care of the BBC.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

A Remarkable Relationship in Paint

I have joined a lively group in London called Ladeez Do Comics to discuss the art of the graphic novel. Despite the name, the gender split is about 50/50 but it was ladies who started this, two formidable artists Nicola Streeten and Sarah Lightman. They nominate a book for reading and invite practitioners and publishers to talk to us each month - all very relaxed, friendly and stimulating. However, we shall soon be mumbling through woollen scarves as there's no heating as yet in our space off Brick Lane.

At our last meeting, we were hoping to meet an interesting Belgian artist, Dominique Goblet,but something prevented it at the last minute which was so maddening. But I've been alerted to a stunning project she pursued over 10 years with her daughter. Every week they drew each other until Nikita was 17 and needed her own space.
You really must look at some of the remarkable results here.
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